Recently I ran a leadership meeting at an organization that has an incredible history.
It was an interesting, edgy, and sightly challenging experience.
They had asked for my help to refine their mission and identify their next steps.
And I’d said yes because they wanted—and had the potential—to make an incredible contribution to the world.
But I’m a coach, not a consultant.
Which means my job is to bring what they ‘need’, not what they want.
Because transformation happens from the inside-out.
As Leo Tolstoy wrote, over 100 years ago:
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
I was going to help them craft a powerful mission from the inside-out.
I began the session by explaining my intention to help them each get in touch with a purpose so powerful it made them cry—because you can’t move others unless you feel moved yourself.
From that place, a powerful shared mission would surface.
And they would know the next steps they’d need to take.
But if they couldn’t get to that place, it wouldn’t matter what clever “mission statement” a consultant helped them create, it would be just another nice slogan on a wall that meant nothing.
I created an experience for them to get vulnerable with one another.
It was uncomfortable.
And then I invited the leader of the group to be coached by me.
I wanted to create a safe space to go really deep with one person.
I wanted to draw out her story—and from there, her purpose.
I knew that people wouldn’t listen to HER story.
They would hear her story through THEIR story.
And by coaching one, I’d be coaching them all.
Five minutes into the coaching, the leader was in tears, moved by insights about her life.
And then one of the team interrupted. She was clearly frustrated.
It was an edgy moment.
The leader was really open and vulnerable. I wanted to take her deeper still. I didn’t want to leave her at that moment.
But I could only be where we were, so I invited the team member to ask her question.
“I want to check in with everyone,” she said.
“We only have 45 minutes left and I’m worried we’re not going to get to our action plan in time.
I don’t really understand why you’re coaching one person, when we just want to know our next steps.”
It was a challenging moment.
In an instant, a dozen thoughts shot through my mind.
Here are a few of them:
- I don’t have enough of a relationship with the group where I can just ask her to trust me…
- Maybe she’s right and I should have done something easy like creating a shared mission statement…
- How’s the leader doing, now her deep coaching has been interrupted?
- Did I screw this up somehow?
- I want to go home!
- What do I do?
My mind was spinning but years of training kicked in too.
I slowed down.
I breathed deeply.
I checked in with the group.
And they really opened up.
I was very glad I’d created an opportunity for them to be vulnerable with one another at the start because now they really went there with one another.
Whilst some were grateful for the check-in, most wanted to go deeper still and were willing to trust the process.
One man explained that because of the earlier exercise he was able to feel his frustration with the person who interrupted but know that it was his thing and be OK with it.
He was glad she spoke her truth.
It just wasn’t his truth.
There was agreement in the room for us to continue.
But then the woman who’d interrupted asked me, “Can you first tell us what you’re going to do next?”
I took a slow breath.
“No.” I replied. I said it gently. But I meant it.
“I can’t tell you where we’re going next because I don’t know where we’re going next.”
I really didn’t. I was in the moment.
I turned back to the leader. I checked in with her. I coached her some more.
She shared stories of her childhood.
I drew out of her a single word that touched her heart and moved her soul.
It was the very reason she’d become a leader in the first place.
The tears stopped.
She was there.
We felt it.
Then we went around the room and I drew out from each of them a single word or phrase that captured who they are.
A word that traveled back in time to their childhood.
And a word that echoed into the future they wanted to create.
And then our time was up.
We didn’t have a clever mission statement.
We had no clear action steps.
We had 9 words.
Love. Fairness. Potential. Learning. Curiosity. Walk your talk. Connectivity. Contribution. Generous giving.
9 words that resonated deep in the heart of each leader.
And I knew… I knew from that place, a powerful shared mission would surface.
And, from there they would know the next steps they needed to take.
As I walked out of the building, I gave a huge sigh.
It was an intense experience for me.
Later that night, I received an email from one of the leaders in the room.
“As I wander back to my home I wanted to thank you for this evening.
Seeing your process was an exceptional experience and I am grateful you came and offered it.
The connection you made to the purpose of our organization, with our desire to explore and go forward with an emotionally connected purpose, really resonated with me.”
And I was grateful to him.
You see, I’d doubted myself and I’d felt uncomfortable and I’d questioned the process.
And for a moment I remembered why I do what I do.
Here are my insights from that experience:
1. The job of a leader is to facilitate uncomfortable conversations
Our job is to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
That’s not easy.
And you have to model it.
Our strength lies in our differences, not in our similarities, so your job as a leader is to prepare for uncomfortable conversations:
Give up the idea that you’re right.
Really listen to the person.
Find out what they really need.
Let them feel understood.
You don’t have to agree with them.
2. Listen for Insight, not Agreement
Teach your people this powerful distinction.
Most people listen for agreement.
I agree with what she said. I disagree with what he said.
Train them instead to listen to each other like they’re listening to music.
You don’t listen to Frank Sinatra thinking, I like this note; I don’t like that one.
You let the music flow over you.
When you listen for insight, you get really present to the person speaking.
And when they’re done you check in what you got—before you jump into what you want to say.
3. Trust The Process
Set an intention and let go of how it will happen.
The intention is your compass.
I knew we were going on a powerful journey. It’s what I do.
That can be challenging for some people and I need to be OK with that.
I don’t need to be ‘right’.
When I trust the process, I know we’ll go where we need to go.
4. Simple is harder than complicated
As Dave Trott says, Many people think complicated is clever. But simple is clever. And you have to go beyond complicated to get to simple.
That’s simple but it’s not easy.
As a leader, set your sights on simplicity.
I’ve been fascinated by leadership since I was made School Captain by my headteacher at 11 years old and I had not a single idea what “school captain” even meant!
For over 35 years I’ve read, learned and studied leadership.
And the more I learn, the more I’m reminded that it’s like riding a bicycle.
You can read books or watch videos about it but you’ll only learn about it from doing it—and more importantly, from your bumps and bruises along the ride.